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Home Office Chaos Highlights First Metre Failings of Bureaucracy (01 May 2006)

Events at the Home Office during April and May, relating to the failure of the authorities to deport over 1,000 foreign prisoners following the completion of their sentences, have cast into stark relief the inability of the Home Office and its apparently competing and autonomous agencies to manage their complex procedures to assure the safety of the UK population at a time when others in government are pontificating about measures to contain threats to the population under the blanket prescription of ‘terror’.

A run-of-the-mill bureaucrat’s work is, by definition, ‘rule-following’ and generally it is devoid of any requirement to exercise judgement. There is no more efficient and reliable means of following rules that do not allow human judgement than the use of a an informed computer process. It is therefore a salutary experience to see such vivid evidence of the Civil Service’s failure to apply well proven technology to the processing of information at the Home Office.
The failures have been described by officials as being ‘systemic’, as if the very use of the word itself explains the cause of the failure – which, if it does, is even more worrying than if the failure had been a one-off ‘system failure’ as one would hope, but not necessarily expect, since joined-up government is sadly more a political slogan than a government achievement.  The Home Office obviously suffers from inelegant complexity that prevents it from the first task of an institution of democratic government, which is the provision of enabling frameworks favouring the electorate rather than empire-building and turf-protecting processes exercising highly centralised control over every agency under its influence. 

Briefing Note on Bureaucracy
Karl Weber in his opus magnum ‘Economy and Society’ (1922) saw bureaucrats as members of an impersonal status group whose main role is the creation of a system of authority that is effectively indestructible, is focussed on administrative procedures and is intended to level-out social and economic differences*. He summarised a bureaucratic organization as one that displays the following characteristics:
  • official business is conducted on a continuous basis by officials whose remit, responsibilities and authority are strictly defined;
  • each official is part of a vertical hierarchy of authority, with respective rights of supervision and appeal;
  • officials have no rights to, and are fully accountable for, the resources necessary for the performance of their duties;
  • official duty and private interests are strictly separated;
  • officers have no proprietary rights pertaining to their official position;
  • official business is conducted on the basis of written documents.
Accordingly, a bureaucrat is a free person appointed to a full-time office with a salary and lifetime career prospect, on the basis of conduct and qualification, to exercise delegated authority in accordance with impersonal rules. Officials must exercise judgment and skill, but their duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority. Ultimately the beauracrat is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice any personal judgment if it runs counter to the official line of duty.
The problem with bureaucracy is not new. As long ago as the mid-1700s French writers were lamenting the bureaucratic dilemma. "We are obsessed by the idea of regulation, and our Masters of Requests refuse to understand that there is an infinity of things in a great state with which a government should not concern itself." (Baron de Grimm). Likewise the French economist, Vincent de Gournay, also observed that: "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Later in mid-1765 Baron Grimm returned to the subject, writing: "The real spirit of the laws in France is that bureaucracy of which the late Monsieur de Gournay used to complain so greatly; here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist.” 

* Thought! Surely with the advent of the web we are at last, and for the first time in history, now able to begin dismantling those great and costly edifices of bureaucracy that have for so long been a self-serving agent of government.